In preparation for shopping day, I like to clean out the pantry, refrigerators and freezers, and get them organized. We have two refrigerators and two separate freezers, but this is not necessary to mega meal plan, shop and cook — we have a few other factors that make it important for us. One is that we have dairy goats and can have up to 20 gallons of milk at a time in one refrigerator. Another is that we raise animals for meat and need the larger capacity at butchering time.
Once the space is prepared to receive the glut of food I’ll be bringing home, it’s time to shop. I bring several older teens and try to leave the little ones at home. My stores of choice are Costco, Smart & Final, Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and Walmart. Very occasionally, I will stop in at a traditional grocery store… particularly if the sales on meat are extraordinary. But more often than not, I can get excellent prices on meat at the Costco Business Center in San Diego, and I don’t bother with stopping at grocery stores to take advantage of their loss-leader sales.
I also shop at a few non-traditional places. This practice began because of our family’s struggles with food allergies. It’s SUCH a pain to go to store after store and stand in the aisles reading labels to be sure an item is safe for my food-allergic kids. Or to hear of a brand that is “safe” for their allergies, and schlep all over town looking for the product, only to return empty-handed. Buying online saves me time and hassle.
Online: Amazon.com – Here I buy specialty groceries and allergy-friendly items that are probably available locally, but which would take some hunting; and I find it much easier to just compare prices and buy online. Examples of this are coconut products, energy bars, protein powder, oils for soap making, gelatin, gluten free pastas, xanthan gum, sunflower seed butter, small packets of almond butter, healthy breakfast cereal. I also buy cosmetics, toiletries and personal care items. Using Amazon Prime and their Subscribe and Save service saves me money and gets my items to me fast.
Vitacost.com – Here I buy mostly vitamins, but am increasingly drawn to them for specialty food items. They have free shipping on orders over $49, and they ship fast. I usually get my items within two days.
doTerra – I buy some personal care products here. I’m sensitive to artificial scents. Essential oils have been a wonderful thing for me. I especially love the “On Guard” hand soap and toothpaste.
Co-op: Azure Standard – Here I buy bulk items, wheat, rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, quinoa, millet flour, lentils, split peas, beans. Pretty much anything you could find in a health food store can be purchased here at a discount. I’m a part of a local group that orders once a month. There are groups all over the country. Visit their website to locate a group near you.
Local: Ethnic markets. I like 99 Ranch and Balboa Market in San Diego. Both are about 30 miles from my home, but are near where my parents live so I’m in the area often. Here I purchase sweet rice flour, rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, coconut milk, coconut cream, rice noodles, produce. And many other fun ingredients. It’s an adventure to shop in an ethnic market. Fun!
Before I leave, I remove 2-3 seats from the back of my 15 passenger van to make room for all the food. (You need a heavy-duty vehicle for this level of food haul.) I put coolers in the van and some heavy-duty blankets to insulate the cold food.
I start as early in the morning as I can manage. Costco is where I buy the bulk of the food items. I go there first. The Costco Business Center opens early. They sell meat at great prices but you have to buy by the case. This is no problem since I am, after all, buying eight weeks worth of food for a mega family. I generally purchase about 160 pounds of chicken and 100 pounds of beef. I buy select cuts of pork, but since we raise our own pork, I usually have a good supply in the freezer already.
Cheese of all types can be purchased in bulk (5-pound blocks). Large packages of butter, lunch meats, 15 dozen eggs, 3-pound blocks of cream cheese, 20-pound boxes of tomatoes, etc. They also sell the most amazing 14-inch tortillas. One of those babies, when filled, will satisfy even my hollow-legged teen and young adult kids.
I go through my list and purchase everything I possibly can at Costco.
Boneless chicken breasts, boneless chicken thighs, whole chickens, chicken drums and thighs, and ground beef by the case. Large packages of beef to be cut into steaks, stew meat or whatever my recipes require. 50-pound bags of rice, beans, sugar, flour, brown sugar, potatoes and onions. 20-pound boxes of spaghetti, rigatoni and other pastas, #10 cans of tomato sauce, tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, ketchup. Half-gallon and gallon jugs of canola and olive oils, mayonnaise, mustard, barbecue sauce. Big packages of chocolate chips, nuts, vanilla, peanut butter. Lots of bags of coffee beans, many blocks of cheese, sour cream, heavy cream, spices, tuna, tortillas, butter, cocoa powder. Large boxes and bags of fresh tomatoes, lettuce, lemons, garlic. Frozen veggies in 5-pound bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil.
Some items carried at the regular Costco are not available at the Business Center, so I make a stop at the regular Costco too for things like almond butter, potato chips, some personal care items and some nuts.
Then I hit Trader Joe’s for sparkling water, gluten-free pastas and a few other must haves like chocolate :).
Sprouts is where I buy a lot of produce, Boar’s Head deli meats and oats in bulk (50 pounds).
In Smart & Final I pick up toilet paper, some bulk items that I can’t find in Costco, frozen french fries (when I buy them), pet items, and bread bags for our homemade bread.
Walmart is usually the last stop, and is sometimes postponed for another day since I mostly buy toiletries, cleaning supplies and pet items there. These can wait.
The reality is that I don’t always have to hit all these stores on shopping day. I sometimes just get the bulk of it — all the things needed for the food prep/mega cooking session that is following — and go out another day for the rest. It depends on how pressed for time I feel.
Also, I do buy all the cheese and other dairy products I need for my two-months cycle. The use-by dates are generally at least that far out, and I have not had trouble with spoilage. We keep dairy goats, and have a steady supply of fresh milk. We have chickens which provide us with fresh eggs, and a garden to supply us with (some of) our produce. There is no way, however, that I have space for ALL the produce I would need for eight weeks, even if it could stay fresh that long. So, I buy the stuff that keeps well (cabbages, potatoes, onions, garlic), the stuff I need on my mega cooking day (i.e., immediately) and the produce I will need for the first 7-10 days of meals. As I need more fresh produce, I stop at one of several produce stands/stores near my home, or I’ll stop in at Sprouts or another convenient store when I’m out on my weekly errand/lesson day.
This huge shopping trip usually costs me between $1,500 and $1,800. Remember though, that is lasting for two months, and it is for three meals a day for 10-12 people — some of whom are teenagers. It also includes paper products, toiletries, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent and pet products. If I add in the cost of the produce I purchase each week that number goes up a few hundred dollars. So, that’s about $1,000 per month, or roughly $100 per month per person.
So, how do I budget for such a large expense? Well, we divide the work in our finances. I have a budget, and get a certain amount every month. I take care of food, household expenses, school-related stuff, clothing. My husband pays the rest of the bills. I have to keep money in reserve for the big expense. I know it’s coming. So, I hold back about $1,000 each month of the money I manage and then I have what I need when I need it.
When I get home with all this food, it’s a family affair to get it all hauled into the house. I mostly don’t bother putting away the non-perishables at first. It stays near the entry way of my home. (Please be careful if you visit us during this time. It’s a hazardous environment and I might just put you to work!) The dairy products go straight to the fridge. Many items, like tortillas and sausages, can go straight into the freezer because they are already packaged in a way that is consistent with how I will use them. The bulk meats, however are not. We get right to work on that as we move directly into…
a Mega Cooking session.